The U.S. expansion across its western frontier has been mythologized for so long that a certain perception is ironclad: The West was a place for pioneering cowboys, gun-toting outlaws, adventure seekers, and, oh right, Native Americans who were at war with white settlers. This mythologizing has been very good for the mythologizers. It’s earned them an avalanche of accolades (like High Noon in 1952), Academy Awards (like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992), and box-office riches (like The Lone Ranger from 2013, which earned more than $250 million).
A major photo exhibit, “Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell,” says the mythologizing happened in real time, too — paid for by Union Pacific railroad, which wanted Andrew J. Russell to document its historic quest to lay down tracks across Wyoming, Utah, and other states in 1868 and 1869. Russell did his job well, and the most famous image from his trip, East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail, shows the transcontinental railroad’s completion — an orgiastic moment when workers and officials from the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies shook hands, posed, and toasted their triumph in the high altitude at Promontory Summit, Utah.
At a time when “manifest destiny” was a subject on every American’s mind, and when the United States was still coming to terms with the Civil War’s end, Russell’s photo and resulting illustrations were landmark visual evidence. “We can imagine no pictures more interesting to the civilized world,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a prominent media outlet, bellowed to its readers.
But Russell took scores of other photos that were less triumphant and didn’t make the front pages of the popular press. Inadvertently, these other photos revealed the railroad magnates’ (and Russell’s) disregard for Native Americans and their ancestral lands. In real time, we see the last vestiges of a people forced to witness their own decimation.
The Oakland Museum of California parses Russell’s images into different subject areas, and curators post quotes from living Native Americans who critique the photos from a post-colonial perspective. Their verdict: The horseback-riding Ute whom Russell categorized as “on the War Path” were anything but — neither on the attack or even Ute. (They were Shoshone.) And the women whom Russell called “squaws” and the men whom he called “snake chiefs” were also badly mischaracterized. Russell, a former captain in the Union Army, never got to know the native people he photographed and labeled. In one photo titled Whites Visiting Indian Camp, Rico Miranda of the Rumsen Ohlone tribe said for the exhibit, “When I look at this image I feel sorrowful. I see people whose spiritual connection to their land had been forcibly removed. I see it as an advertisement . . . ‘Look how safe it is, we’ve tamed this land and these people. . . They’re so tame we can sit among them.’ ”
From a purely photographic standpoint, Russell was at his best in natural spaces, positioning his giant lens at the breathtaking expanse before him — like the monumental Wyoming rock formations that surround the railroad laborers in Temporary and Permanent Bridge, Green River, Citadel Rock in Distance. The image, which curators enlarged to wall size, is an antecedent to the environmental photography that Ansel Adams’ would usher in 60 years later. Russell was trained as a painter, and he had an eye for textures, shapes, shadows, and symmetries. The locomotive chimney in Temporary and Permanent Bridge, Green River, Citadel Rock in Distance is in harmonic balance with the formation now called Castle Rock, and the squares of rocks in the foreground form piles that mesh with the dark-clothed, statue-like men who give life to the image.
Temporary and Permanent Bridge, Green River, Citadel Rock in Distance greets visitors to “Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell,” and it sets in motion the love-hate feelings that arise from seeing someone whose work is technically and aesthetically pure but whose intentions are questionable. It’s unclear how much Russell was really trying to laud the railroads’ expansion and how much he was — like Adams — trying to show territories that should be preserved. Russell was clearly determined. He practiced wet-plate photography — an elaborate process that required him to bathe glass in chemicals and lug a dark room with a horse-drawn wagon. “Pushing West” displays a camera similar to the one Russell used, and we see Russell himself in imagery. We also see future president Ulysses S. Grant, then the Commanding General of the United States Army, visiting Wyoming, and Chinese workers who were working on the Central Pacific railroad project that connected with Union Pacific’s. But these images are really footnotes. The proof: In the 1869 publication that emerged from Russell’s work, The Great West Illustrated in a Series of Photographic Views Across the Continent, the preface and images play up the landscapes — not the railroad workers or even Russell, who sublimated his voice into photos that he thought would speak for themselves. What they say is open to debate, but Andrew J. Russell’s legacy is a complicated one that’s still worth parsing out.
In 1986, photographer Lee Friedlander happened on a street scene in New York that was surreal and full of meaning if you studied it longer than a second. The city’s Department of Buildings, which regulates construction sites, had established a perimeter in front of a site, and the multi-section wall said — over and over in big letters — “Post No Bills.” But someone had rearranged the sections. They were out of order. One section was even upside down, so none of the wording made sense. Even the Department of Buildings’ phone number was discombobulated.
Discombobulation is a Friedlander specialty, so a Friedlander exhibit of signs spanning decades is a chance to see how far he’s taken his obsession with signage. The answer: Pretty damn far. Whether it’s a 1964 photo of an elderly London protester with a sign as big as he is that says “THE END IS AT HAND,” or a 2008 photo of a Denver parking lot that has way too many signs and instructions (“PAY HERE . . . USE AUTOMATED PAY STATION . . . . PRIVATE PARKING”), Friedlander finds people and places that he thinks are funny or profound or just plain odd.
The exhibit is running at the same time that Friedlander’s images are part of SFMOMA’s exhibit called “Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes.” Several SFMOMA images show shadows overtaking the frame, but that exhibit makes the case that Friedlander and others relished breaking with photographic convention — and that their “mistakes” weren’t mistakes at all. In “Lee Friedlander: SIGNS,” Friedlander’s image of the Department of Buildings’ messed-up sign is the same: an error in spelling that actually feels like a triumphant find. That’s Friedlander at his best.
“Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell” Through September 1 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. $7-$16, museumca.org, 510-318-8400.
“Lee Friedlander: SIGNS” Through August 17 at Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary, S.F. Free, fraenkelgallery.com, 415-981-2661.